The shuttle is a $1 billion machine that is the first spacecraft fitted with wings and a tail built to take off like a rocket, orbit the planet and land on Earth like an airplane.
It cost the United States $10.2 billion to develop and build the first two space shuttles and make four test flights of the first shuttle, the Columbia, to prove its spaceworthiness. The next flight of the second space shuttle, the Challenger, next month will be its second and will make a total of seven flights by the two spaceliners.
If the first six flights are any guide, the seventh should be a piece of cake.
So far, Columbia and Challenger have made 474 revolutions of the Earth and have covered almost 12.4 million miles of space in what have been nearly flawless flights.
"We covered 81 orbits and flew 2 million miles around the Earth, and the worst thing we experienced was a couple of the lights in the payload bay didn't work," astronaut Joseph P. Allen once said of the fifth flight.
The next flight will have a crew of five, four men (one a physician) and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.
The doctor will make the flight to perform experiments to see what causes spacesickness, which has hit half the men who have flown the shuttle so far.
Ride's job will be to work the robot arm in the cargo bay that deploys into orbit two communications satellites, one for Indonesia and the other for Canada.
The size of a DC9 jetliner, the space shuttle can carry as much as 65,000 pounds into orbit, although it won't reach that maximum until sometime in 1985. It will carry 28,000 pounds on the June flight, and is due to carry 58,000 pounds into orbit as early as the 14th flight, now scheduled for mid-1984.
Two more spaceliners are being built and are scheduled for delivery by 1985. The spaceliner Discovery is expected to make its maiden voyage on the 12th shuttle flight in March, 1984, and the spaceliner Atlantis is scheduled to fly for the first time on the 25th shuttle flight in April, 1985.
Ride will make space history for more than being the first American woman in space. She'll be a member of the first crew to land the spaceliner at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where all the space shuttle flights have begun so far, rather than at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where all have landed so far.